This coming Sunday is Septuagesima in the traditional Roman calendar It comes late this year because of the vagaries of the moon.
In the pre-Conciliar calendar this period before Ash Wednesday is called the Season of Epiphany. Part of it is also called Time of Septuagesima in some reckonings. The time after Epiphany and the time after Pentecost are both called the tempus per annum, “the time through the year”. That terminology remained in the Novus Ordo to describe the two parts of “Ordinary Time”.
The Sunday is called Septuagesima from the Latin for “seventieth”, as in 70 days before Easter. This is more symbolic than perfectly arithmetical. The Sundays which follow are Sexagesima (“sixtieth”) and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”) before Ash Wednesday brings in Lent, called in Latin Quadragesima, “Fortieth”.
These pre-Lenten Sundays prepare us for the discipline of Lent, which once was far stricter in its requirements for fasting. Eastern Church retain a deeper discipline in this regard.
Septuagesima gives us a more solemn attitude for Holy Mass. Purple is worn on Sunday and weekdays without feasts rather than the green of the time after Epiphany. These Sundays have Roman stations. Alleluia is sung for the last time at First Vespers of Septuagesima and is then excluded until Holy Saturday. There was once a tradition of “burying” the Alleluia, with a depositio ceremony, like a little funeral. A hymn of farewell was sung. There was a procession with crosses, tapers, holy water, and a coffin containing a banner with Alleluia. The coffin was sprinkled, incensed, and buried. In some places, such as Paris, a straw figure bearing an Alleluia of gold letters was burned in the churchyard. Somehow that seems very French to me.
The prayers and readings for the Masses of these pre-Lenten Sundays were compiled by St. Gregory the Great (+604), Pope in a time of great turmoil and suffering. Pre-Lent is particularly a time for preaching about missions and missionary work, the evangelization of peoples.
In the Novus Ordo of Paul VI there is no more pre-Lent. A terrible loss.
We are grateful that with Summorum Pontificum the pre-Lent Sundays have regained something of their ancient status.